Social Security Survivor Benefits: All You Need to Know

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Social Security is best known for its payouts to retirees, but survivor benefits are an equally important type of Social Security payment. Your spouse or dependents could be eligible for your Social Security benefits (survivor benefits) after your death. However, it is not as straightforward as many complicated rules surround the Social Security survivor benefits.

In this article, we will try to simplify the Social Security survivor benefits for you.

Social Security Survivor Benefits: What Is It?

Survivor benefits are the monthly benefits that go to a spouse, former spouse or children of a person who was receiving or eligible for Social Security benefits when they were alive. There are situations when a deceased’s parents, grandchildren or stepchildren may also qualify for survivor benefits.

In March 2023, about 5.9 million people received Social Security survivor benefits. The survivor benefits primarily depend on the amount of Social Security benefits the deceased received or was entitled to at the time of death.

Who Qualifies For Social Security Survivor Benefits?

Survivor benefits are available to the following family members:

  • A widow or widower aged 60 or older (the age limit is 50 in the case of disabled).
  • A widow or widower of any age, provided he or she has not remarried and is taking care of the deceased’s child, who is below 16 years or is disabled.
  • An unmarried child of the deceased could also qualify for the benefits if he or she is below 18 years, or 18 or older with a disability that started before age 22.
  • The deceased person’s stepchild, adopted child, grandchild, or step-grandchild could also qualify under certain circumstances.
  • A surviving divorced spouse if they meet all other eligibility requirements.
  • Parents of the deceased may also qualify, provided they are 62 or older and they depend on the deceased for at least half of their income. Also, their own benefit must not be bigger than the deceased’s.

Credits Needed

The number of credits that you need so that your family members qualify for survivor benefits depends on your age when you die. The general rule is the younger you are, the fewer credits you need. However, the maximum credit that one ever needs is 40. Usually, a person needs to work or pay Social Security taxes for at least 10 years to get the needed credits.

However, if your spouse takes care of your dependent children after your death, then the rule is that you must have earned six credits within the three calendar years before your death to ensure your spouse qualifies for the benefit.

How Much Are Social Security Survivor Benefits?

As noted above, the amount of survivor benefits your family gets depends on your average lifetime earnings. So, the more you earn, the higher will be the survivor benefit (up to a certain limit).

Specifically, the benefit amount depends on the Social Security that the deceased would have received at full retirement age if still living. If the deceased started collecting the benefit before their full retirement age, resulting in a lower payout, the survivor benefits will depend on that reduced amount.

Also, the amount of survivor benefits depends on the survivor’s relationship with the deceased, as well as the age at which the survivor starts receiving the benefits.

For instance, a widow or widower will get 100% of the deceased’s benefit after reaching full retirement age. They will get 71.5% to 99% of the benefit if they are between 60 and full retirement age. A disabled survivor aged 50 through 59 will qualify for 71.5% of the benefit.

A widow or widower who is taking care of a child (below 16 years) will get 75% of the benefit. Eligible divorced spouses will qualify for the same percentage of survivor benefits as widows and widowers.

Similarly, children below 18 years (and disabled dependent children) qualify for 75% of the deceased’s benefit. A single surviving dependent parent can get 82.5% of the benefit, while two dependent parents can get 75% each.

How And When To Apply

You can apply for survivor benefits by phone at 800-772-1213 or in person at your local Social Security office. If you are planning to apply in person, it is recommended that you schedule an appointment in advance to avoid long waits. Visit this link for more details on Social Security survivor benefits.

You will need the following document to apply for Social Security survivor benefits:

  • Proof of death (from a funeral home or death certificate).
  • Your and the deceased spouse’s Social Security number.
  • Marriage certificate (in the case of a widow or widower).
  • Your birth certificate, as well as birth certificates and Social Security numbers of any dependent children.
  • Latest W-2 forms or federal self-employment tax return of the deceased spouse.

Talking of when to apply for survivor benefits, there is no time limit to file. In fact, the benefits actually grow if you delay claiming it until you reach full retirement age. So, you need not claim survivor benefits immediately after your spouse dies.

You may, however, apply for survivor benefits before full retirement age if your financial situation demands it. It must be noted that the survivor benefits are not retroactive to the time of death, but rather are dated from the time you apply.